On July 19, 1990, petitioners Rodson Philippines, Inc., Eurasia Heavy Industries, Inc., Autographics, Inc. and Peter Y. Rodriguez, filed a Complaint for damages against respondent Eastar Resources (Asia) Corporation with the Regional Trial Court of Cebu City, Branch 7, then presided by Judge Generoso A. Juaban. The case was docketed as Civil Case No. CEB-9224.
After the presentation of Peter Y. Rodriguez and Yolanda Lua as witnesses, the petitioners filed their formal offer of evidence on September 3, 1993. The petitioners rested their case after their documentary evidence was admitted by the court. The respondent then presented one witness, Mary C. Maquilan. On March 29, 1994, the respondent prayed for time to make their formal offer of evidence. The court granted the respondents motion and gave it a period of fifteen (15) days to do so. The court then granted the petitioners a period of ten (10) days from service of the said formal offer within which to file their comment thereon.
The petitioners declared in open court that they would be presenting rebuttal evidence, and prayed that the hearing for the said purpose be set at 9:00 a.m. of May 4, 1994. The case was reset to June 1, 1994.
The petitioners changed their original counsel and retained a new one, Atty. Purita Hontanosas-Cortes, the sister of their original counsel.
In the meantime, the respondent filed its formal offer of evidence and sent a copy thereof to the petitioners on June 1, 1994. When the case was called for the presentation of the petitioners rebuttal evidence on the said date, the new counsel for the petitioners manifested her desire to recall the respondents witness, Mary Maquilan, for further cross-examination. She reasoned that she was not satisfied with the cross-examination of the previous counsel, and asked for time to file the necessary motion. The court granted the same, and gave her fifteen (15) days to do so. The court also gave the respondent a period of ten (10) days from receipt thereof within which to file its comment or opposition. The court held in abeyance the resolution of the respondents formal offer of evidence until such time that the petitioners motion to recall Maquilan for further cross-examination was resolved. On June 24, 1994, the petitioners filed their motion to recall Maquilan as a witness for further cross-examination.
In the meantime, Judge Juaban retired from the government service. Acting Presiding Judge Andres C. Garalza, Jr. issued an order giving the respondent a final period of seven (7) days from notice within which to file its written comment on the petitioners motion to recall Maquilan.
Thereafter, Judge Martin A. Ocampo was appointed presiding judge of the RTC of Cebu City, Branch 7. The hearing of the petitioners motion to recall the witness was set for hearing on March 26, 1996. During the hearing, the counsel for the petitioners called the attention of the court to the fact that they had not yet filed their comment on the respondents formal offer of evidence because of the pending incident. The court, for its part, declared that a formal offer of evidence was premature, precisely because of such pending incident.
After the hearing, the court issued an order denying the petitioners motion to recall Maquilan as witness for additional cross-examination, without prejudice to the petitioners recalling the latter as a hostile witness on the presentation of its rebuttal evidence.
In the meantime, the petitioners failed to file their comment on the respondents formal offer of evidence. The court, likewise, failed to resolve the said incident despite the denial of the petitioners motion to recall Maquilan for additional cross-examination.
On April 1, 1996, the trial court sent a subpoena ad testificandum to Maquilan, requiring her to appear before the court and to testify as a hostile rebuttal witness for the petitioners at 9:00 a.m. on June 17 and 18, 1996. The respondent filed its urgent motion to quash the subpoena on the ground that the witness was a resident of Quezon City, which was more than fifty (50) kilometers away and, as such, could not be compelled to testify under Section 9 of Rule 23 of the Revised Rules of Court.
During the hearing on June 17, 1996, the trial court expressed doubts as to whether it could compel Maquilan to appear before the court, considering that she was a resident of Quezon City which is more than fifty (50) kilometers from the venue of trial.
Because of the adverse rulings they had been receiving from the trial court, the petitioners manifested that they would file a motion to inhibit the judge from further hearing the case, and to have the case re-raffled to another branch. The court welcomed such motion, if only to put the petitioners mind at rest.
In its Order dated August 19, 1996, Judge Martin A. Ocampo inhibited himself from further hearing the case and ordered the transmittal of the records of the case to the Office of the Executive Judge for re-raffle.
The case was re-raffled to the RTC of Cebu City, Branch 11, presided by Judge Isaias P. Dicdican. After a review of the records, the trial court discovered that the petitioners motion to recall Mary Maquilan had already been denied; that the petitioners had not yet filed their comment on the respondents formal offer of documentary evidence; and, that the said formal offer of evidence had not yet been resolved by the court. On July 17, 1997, the trial court issued an Order admitting the respondents documentary evidence for the purposes they were offered.The court also set the continuation of the trial for the presentation of the petitioners rebuttal evidence to 8:30 a.m. of August 27, 1997.
On August 25, 1997, the petitioners filed a Motion to Defer the Hearing Set on August 27, 1997, and prayed that they be given a chance to file their written objection to the formal offer of evidence filed by the respondent. The trial court denied the motion, per its Order dated August 27, 1997. The trial court ruled that the ten-day period given to the petitioners per its Order of March 29, 1994 had long since elapsed. It emphasized that the order holding in abeyance its ruling on the respondents formal offer of evidence did not toll the ten-day period for the filing of the petitioners comment thereon.
The petitioners filed a motion for the reconsideration of the order. The trial court denied the said motion in an Order dated October 29, 1997.
The petitioners, thereafter, filed a petition for certiorari and prohibition with the Court of Appeals, assailing the orders of the RTC, with a prayer for the issuance of a restraining order directing the public respondent RTC to refrain from proceeding with the scheduled hearing of the case and other subsequent settings thereof.
WHETHER OR NOT PUBLIC RESPONDENT COMMITTED GRAVE ABUSE OF DISCRETION AMOUNTING TO LACK OR EXCESS OF JURISDICTION WHEN HE ISSUED THE THREE QUESTIONED ORDERS OF JULY 17, 1997, AUGUST 27, 1997 AND OCTOBER 29, 1997 DENYING PETITIONERS AN OPPORTUNITY TO FILE THEIR OBJECTIONS/COMMENT TO PRIVATE RESPONDENTS VOLUMINOUS FORMAL OFFER OF EVIDENCE?
We join the Court of Appeals in ruling that the trial court did not commit a grave abuse of its discretion amounting to excess of or without jurisdiction in issuing the assailed orders.
Irrefragably, the petitioners had until June 12, 1994 within which to file their comment on the respondents formal offer of evidence. The ten-day period within which to file such comment was not suspended by the filing and, thereafter, the pendency of the petitioners motion to recall Maquilan as a witness for additional cross-examination. What was merely suspended by such motion was the trial courts resolution of the respondents formal offer of evidence. The petitioners failed to file their comment within the period therefor.
Indeed, Judge Martin Ocampo erred in declaring that the respondents formal offer of evidence was prematurely filed, and that the petitioners need not yet file their comment thereon because of the petitioners unresolved motion. The respondent had already presented its lone witness, Maquilan, who already testified on direct and cross-examination. Hence, the respondent was obliged to formally offer its documentary evidence as provided by Section 35, Rule 132 of the Revised Rules on Evidence:
SEC. 35. When to make offer. As regards the testimony of a witness, the offer must be made at the time the witness is called to testify.
Documentary and object evidence shall be offered after the presentation of a partys testimonial evidence. Such offer shall be done orally unless allowed by the court to be done in writing.
Assuming for the nonce that the petitioners believed in good faith the declaration of Judge Ocampo that they could file their comment after the trial court had resolved their pending motion to recall Maquilan for further cross-examination, the records show that the court denied the said motion on March 26, 1996. It then behooved the petitioners to file their comment on the respondents formal offer of evidence after receipt of the said order, or soon thereafter. The petitioners failed to do so. It was only, after receiving the trial courts Order dated July 17, 1997, admitting the documentary evidence of the respondent, after the lapse of more than one year that the petitioners awakened and complained of having been deprived of their right to file their comment on such formal offer of evidence. Even then, the petitioners could have filed a motion for the reconsideration, appending thereto their comment/opposition to the respondents documentary evidence. The petitioners did not do so. If they had appended such opposition to their motion for reconsideration, the trial court could have reviewed the same, and, thereafter, even reconsider its July 17, 1997 Order. A denial thereon could then have been raised before the Court of Appeals, as the appellate court would be able to determine whether or not the trial court, in denying such motion for reconsideration, committed a grave abuse of its discretion.